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Guarding the south: Mexico's crime-ridden border with Guatemala starts to get some long overdue attention.

Mexico's southern flank constitutes a porous, crime-ridden third border of the United States.


The problem is that both President Fox and U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge concentrate on the U.S.-Mexican frontier, while neglecting the Mexican-Guatemalan interface that serves as an open sesame for narcotraffickers, illegal aliens, prostitutes, smugglers and, as some U.S. officials fear, terrorists.

For instance, in a speech late last year in New Mexico, Fox cited "an urgent need to guarantee respect for human rights on our borders, prevent more deaths in the desert, and wage an all-out battle against those who threaten, extort or attack migrants."

The outrage mounts when poor Mexicans, often abandoned by human smugglers known as coyotes, perish in the sizzling Arizona desert or run afoul of overzealous U.S. Border Patrol agents. It would be impossible to ignore the 371 deaths at the U.S. border reported last year by Mexican authorities, and any law-enforcement officer who abuses an immigrant should be held strictly accountable.

Yet even as Fox and Ridge home in on the U.S.-Mexican border, they ignore the dangerous conditions besetting Mexico's southern frontier.

These conditions, however, are recently gaining greater attention, and top officials from the two nations met along the Mexico-Guatemala border in late March to get a handle on the situation. There are only four official crossing points, but observers count a minimum of 29 heavily used illegal crossings.


Chiapas abounds in oil, natural gas, water, hydropower, archeological treasures, grazing land and fertile soil. At the same time, this South Carolinasized state has the nation's lowest percapita income (US$6,253), its highest illiteracy rate (23%), most dwellings without electricity (21%) and with earthen floors (41%).

The poverty is especially harsh among Maya Indians who make up one-fourth of the 4 million Chiapans. Conditions are even worse in the contiguous Guatemalan areas. Ethnically similar to Chiapans, Guatemalans often cross into Mexico to work. Like people from scores of countries, some Guatemalans steal into Mexico as part of a journey to reach the United States. Many of these newcomers take their lives in their hands.


Non-governmental organizations and Mexico's migrant-protection Beta Group agree that most abuses suffered by immigrants entering Mexico take place along its zigzagged, mountainous, 600-kilometer border with Guatemala.

The 100 or more criminal bands that prey on interlopers run the gamut from petty thugs and coyotes to mafia-style squads and vicious street gangs.

The most notorious gangs--often compared to Los Angeles' crips and the bloods--are the Mara Salvatruchas, composed chiefly of former members of the Salvadoran army. These tattooed hoodlums, who pride themselves as "migrant hunters," lie in wait for indocumentados who jump off the slow-moving northbound trains as they approach checkpoints. These Maras, whose criminal activities extend into Oaxaca, also carry out car thefts and kidnappings.

Unscrupulous officials typically opt for bribes over violence. The payments may be a few dollars to allow a single person to transit the border or thousands of dollars to permit the passage of drugs, weapons, stolen automobiles, prostitutes, exotic animals or archeological artifacts. Individuals and professional smugglers often endure shakedowns from both Mexican and Guatemalan officials before encountering private-sector bandits. The tough, boss-ridden union to which Guatemalan immigration agents belong is infamous for migrant smuggling.

But there are signs of change, and Guatemala may become more assertive in pushing for better treatment of its citizens. President Oscar Berger, who took office earlier this year, has named Marta Altolaguirre as vice-minister for foreign relations. Altolaguirre won praise for her activism and perseverance as president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.


In El Carmen, Guatemala, just across the bridge from Talisman, Chiapas, and a stone's throw from a Guatemalan immigration post, the presence of a large lot packed with vehicles bearing California and Texas license tags highlights the impunity with which malefactors ply their trade.

Equally visible from the bridge joining Ciudad Hidalgo, Chiapas, and Tecun Uman, Guatemala, are the ubiquitous balsas, boards perched on truck tires that serve as precarious ferries for migrants and locals willing to pay a few pesos to cross the slow-moving Suchiate River. The largest number of complaints of wrongdoing in Guatemala is lodged against that country's National Civil Police, deemed even more corrupt than Mexican authorities.

Individual smugglers, who charge US$5,000 or more to guide one person 1,500 miles from Central America to the U.S., can earn as much as $100,000 per year--an amount almost as large as that paid by individual Mideastern or Asian would-be immigrants to reach the U.S.

Meanwhile, professional bands--some of them based in the Orient--amass fortunes in this criminal enterprise. The smuggling of humans may be the most lucrative illegal activity in Mexico after narcotrafficking and commerce in stolen automobiles.





While ignored in Mexico City, Chiapan plantation owners frequently make news in Guatemala City for their despotic treatment of workers. The wealthy growers prefer Guatemalans over Mexicans to work on their plantations, where they raise mangos, bananas, coffee and dozens of other crops in the fertile, steamy ambiance of southern Chiapas. Echoing U.S. employers' claims about Americans, these growers insist that Mexicans will not perform hard farm labor.

The ranchers have two options when hiring guest workers. They may take advantage of a program operated jointly by the Mexican and Guatemalan labor ministries or they can contract workers directly from makeshift employment offices in Tecun Uman, a rapidly growing town called "little Tijuana" because of its ubiquitous prostitution and unbridled lawlessness.

The growers accomplish the overwhelming number of their 39,000 annual hires through unofficial channels. A typical contract will specify the employment of 10 to 20 "temporary migrant workers" to harvest coffee or mangos for 30 days at 35 pesos per day.

This approach allows them to pay rates at or below the 40-peso official minimum wage. Although the daily compensation may sometimes be slightly higher, ranchers seldom if ever pay the workers' social security, year-end bonuses and other benefits. On top of this exploitation, some plantation owners deduct from the paltry wages the cost of the two rudimentary daily meals and rustic housing furnished to most workers.

Bribes, intimidation and political pressure ensure that inspectors from the Labor Secretariat, the Social Security Institute and the corruption-suffused National Migration Institute (INM) steer clear of these farms, lest they "make waves," in the words of one former INM official who asked to remain anonymous.

Should an intrepid guest worker report abuses to a labor tribunal, he must (a) take time from work to file his grievance, (b) return a week later to find out the court's response, and (c) personally deliver any tribunal-issued summons to the rancher, who may be surrounded by armed bodyguards. Bureaucratic delays and political pressure ensure that the guest worker will been sent packing long before a hearing date is set.


To its credit, the Fox regime has increased funding for the Beta Group, which was created in 1996 to safeguard Mexicans crossing the U.S.-Mexico frontier. However, of the eight Beta Group offices in the country, only two are in the South: one in Tapachula, the other further north in Comitan, Chiapas. The INM pledged that the Beta's presence in the south would expand from 47 agents to more than 130 officers situated along the five main road, river and rail immigration routes that wind through the states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, Quintana Roo, Tabasco and Veracruz.

Promises aside, this well-regarded organization endures grossly inadequate staffing. The Tapachula office has only 17 agents, who work two long shifts and must cover an area roughly the size of Delaware.

As part of an American-inspired "Southern Plan," to keep northbound migrants from reaching the United States, the INM has launched the Orderly and Secure Repatriation Program for illegals. Now individuals apprehended anywhere in Mexico who claim to be Guatemalan, Honduran or Salvadoran are dispatched to the INM's Tapachula center. From there, they are bused to the frontier of their home country and handed over to local authorities.

The INM's Tapachula center dispatches illegal aliens to Guatemala, Honduras and EI Salvador. There was no opportunity to observe what happened to the deportees once they left Mexican soil. However, of the 3,000 complaints of human-rights violations received by the Casa de Migrante in Tecun Uman in 2003, 95% came from Central Americans deported from Mexico.

Mexican authorities hold most unlawful aliens from other countries at a Mexico City detention center before deporting them. In mid-2001, the facility held 409 illegal migrants representing 39 nationalities--from Albanians to Yemenis. Central American consular officers applaud the INM's readiness to permit them to visit detainees. Whenever possible, the INM seeks reimbursement for the plane ticket from the affected alien, his family or country. In most cases, the Mexican government foots the bill, although the United States has underwritten a hefty share of the expense of repatriations to Central America.


Mexican officials relentlessly emphasize abuses at their northern border instead of at the Mexican-Guatemala frontier, but the conditions on the nation's southern border are beginning to attract international attention.

"Mexico is one of the countries where illegal immigrants are highly vulnerable to human rights violations and become victims of degrading sexual exploitation and slavery-like practices. They are also denied access to education and health care," Gabriela Rodriguez, the U.N. Human Rights Commissioner's special envoy on migrants' rights, said after visiting the Mexico-Guatemala border.

Cleaning up Mexico's own backyard would enhance Fox's credibility as he doggedly lobbies for immigration reform in Washington. At the same time, cracking down on criminal activity in the south would lessen the chance that illegal aliens, criminals and terrorists could use Mexico as a thoroughfare for entering the United States.





This article benefits from a background report that the author prepared for the Center for Immigration Studies. Grayson, who teaches Government at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, can be reached at

Analysis by George W. Grayson

Photos by Antonio Nava

RELATED ARTICLE: Guatemalan Wave Crashes on Mexico's Shores

In 2002, 67,336 of the 138,061 illegal migrants detained in Mexico were Guatemalan.

In 2003, 85,931 of the 187,537 illegal migrants detained were Guatemalan.

Roughly 40% of the total stops both years were made in Chiapas.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Mexican-Guatemalan
Author:Grayson, George W.
Publication:Business Mexico
Geographic Code:1MEX
Date:May 1, 2004
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